Clever ways food waste is being tackled on farms, supermarkets, restaurants and weddings

In part two of a four-part series on food waste, KATE RYAN looks at what the farming and business industry are doing to tackle the issue
Clever ways food waste is being tackled on farms, supermarkets, restaurants and weddings

Kate Ryan at her home in Ballygurteen, Co Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

LAST week, we looked at ways that food waste can be eradicated in the home, by shopping smarter, cooking more consciously, and preserving fresh food for later (and tastier) use.

We rarely eat every meal at home and food waste happens all along the food chain – from farm to bin. What can we do to actively reduce food waste outside our home when we go for a meal, are a guest at a wedding, go grocery shopping, or even down on the farm?

This week, I’ll look at clever and innovative ways food waste is being tackled outside the home.

Declan Martin with a selection of the vegatables available at Waterfallfarms. Picture; Eddie O'Hare
Declan Martin with a selection of the vegatables available at Waterfallfarms. Picture; Eddie O'Hare

On the Farm

Globally, 1.2 billion tonnes of food waste per year happens between the soil and the farmgate, representing the lion’s share of all food waste created.

Waste in livestock farming can be down to spoilage or on-farm culling. On the lead up to Christmas, fear of avian flu in commercial poultry flocks was enormous because it can result in the culling of entire flocks to contain the spread. Other animal diseases lead to culling of individual animals or herds, and all represents waste in the food system – not just from the loss of potential food production, but also the food and feed grown for them.

There are differing views on what and when something is considered waste in horticulture. A seed is sown but the harvest may not be satisfactory for sale. Technically, this is waste, but, as Ultan Walsh, of Gort na Nain farm in Nohoval explained, to him it’s not waste if the crops are ploughed back into the soil, providing much-needed nutrients as they break down ready for the next crop.

Waterfall Farms grow commercial crops and reduce soil wastage by collecting soil washed from root crops, reusing it for seed sowing.

Soil might not be seen as part of the food waste problem, but it is a waste issue. Fertile topsoil is essential for growing 95% of our major crops, but globally soil is eroding at a rate of 24 billion tonnes a year. Soil is a major carbon sink and purifier of water as well as producing most of the food we eat.

Horticulturalists who grow for the supermarket sector can experience high rates of food waste as retailers look for uniform-looking vegetables. Any product not matching strict classifications is considered waste unless alternative markets are found for them.

Back at Waterfall Farms, this form of waste is eradicated by turning their wonky veg into pre-prepared packs for stocks, stews, stir fry, soups and ratatouille for the catering industry.

It takes huge effort to raise and grow the food we eat, so it makes sense financially and environmentally for farms to find ways to reduce their waste. So even though they are the biggest producers of food waste, farms will always seek ways to reduce, reuse and recycle on the farm to eradicate costly and unnecessary waste.

At the Supermarket

Supermarkets have invested heavily in strengthening efficiencies wherever possible to reduce costs to them and customers. Centralised distribution supports ordering at the local level and is best placed to react to customers’ wants, needs and peak grocery events, like Christmas and Easter.

Armed with a huge amount of data on customer shopping behaviours and a super-efficient ordering and distribution network, food waste shouldn’t be an issue for supermarkets, but it is.

In Ireland, 450,000 tonnes of food waste are estimated to be generated annually, and 34% of that (or 153,000 tonnes) by food retailers. 

Over-ordering, changes in customer buying behaviour or good old-fashioned competition between retailers are main drivers behind food waste in retail.

Customers see it in the cut price deals on date-short products, bargain bins, yellow and red sticker offers. Dealing with food waste from unsold products is an expensive business, offering no return to retailers, so items are attractively priced for price-conscious shoppers.

Outside of discount pricing, many retailers are now partnering with food-sharing apps such as Too Good To Go and Olio, who seek to match unsold food items from retailers, bakers, delis, restaurants and takeaways with people looking for something to pick up on the fly for low cost. Apps update in real time the products available, where, and what price.

Where retailers have unsold bulk items, larger distribution options are needed. FoodCloud take large quantities of fresh and ambient foods from retailers and, through their national network of Hubs, redistribute out to charities and food banks.

But it can be a mixed bag, and some of the foods donated are ultra-processed, high in salt and sugar and low in good basic nutrition.

It’s a conundrum: on the one hand it’s redistributing would-be food waste to those who are struggling to put food on the table, but on the other hand good nutrition cannot be found in a tube of Pringles or a two-litre bottle of Lucozade.

At the Restaurant

There are two sides to the restaurant experience - the diner and the chef - and each has its part to play in reducing food waste.

In the U.S, no matter how fancy the restaurant, asking for leftovers to be boxed up and taken away is the norm, yet here it remains the exception. Since Covid, after all that pivoting to at-home kits and takeaways restaurants did, they are more likely to have cartons for facilitating take home, so it’s never been easier to request your food to be boxed up.

As a diner, you have paid for your meal, so where’s the sense in leaving half of it behind only for the restaurant to shoulder the cost of its disposal? I recently dined out in an upmarket steakhouse, and one of our party couldn’t finish their very nice, very pricey steak and asked for it to be boxed up.

In the U.S, your server will ask unprompted if you want to take away your leftovers, and I’d love to see that practice over here. Be extra eco-conscious and come prepared with your own clean Tupperware to reduce wasteful packaging.

For chefs and caterers, dealing with food waste can be a positive thing. Finding things to do with leftovers can reduce cost, increase income, reduce energy use, and increase creativity.

Kieran Coffey of My Gug.
Kieran Coffey of My Gug.

Biodigesters, like Cork-based My Gug, turn unusable leftover food scraps into compost for growing more food. The by-product is a free biogas piped back into the kitchen for cooking.

Veg peelings, off-cuts and end-y bits, coffee grinds, wine and spent grains can all be used to create fermented foods and drinks that unlock new flavours to add a unique creative flair to dishes and expand knowledge of fermentation in the kitchen brigade, sparking creativity and benefitting everyone.

A pioneer of Zero Waste dining is Douglas McMaster and his restaurant, Silo, in the UK. It began with removing the kitchen bin and forcing a radical rethink of waste into a zero-waste mindset and way of working.

Orla McAndrew.
Orla McAndrew.

At a Wedding

I’ve noticed a big change in the way weddings are catered over the past two years. Gone are the wedding breakfasts of old with potatoes served five or six different types of ways: now it’s more about quality and less about wasteful quantity.

In 2022, Cork-based event caterer, Orla McAndrew, launched Ireland’s first ever Zero Waste Wedding Package with huge demand and bookings coming in thick and fast.

Rather than selecting their wedding menu months in advance, conscientious newlyweds put their trust in Orla to create a show-stopping surplus feast only revealed the week of their wedding.

Aspiring to rescue as much surplus food as possible from her network of high-end artisan and speciality food producers across Cork and beyond, businesses will supply surplus perfectly good to eat ingredients, enabling her to save quality produce from needlessly ending up in landfill. Menus are guaranteed to be prepared using a minimum of 80% surplus produce. The remainder is supplemented by dry ingredients and store cupboard staples with long shelf lives.

By weight, Orla estimates the average three-course zero waste wedding meal for 150 guests will save as much as 225kg of surplus food from ending up in landfill.

StopFoodWaste.ie says the average household throws out 150kg of food every year, much of it still suitable for human consumption. Every zero-waste event Orla caters saves the equivalent of one and a half households annual food waste from landfill.

***

Food waste occurs all along the food chain, but it’s not just in our homes where we can exert control. From the farm to supermarkets and their collaborations with food waste apps and food redistribution charities, from eating out in our favourite restaurants to making special celebrations a delicious zero waste event, it’s never been easier to do your bit to stamp out food waste.

For more see:

www.stopfoodwaste.ie

www.food.cloud

www.omcatering.ie

www.togoodtogo.ie

www.olioex.com

www.waterfallfarms.ie

www.gortnanain.com

www.mygug.eu

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